A how-to and a how-not-to guide to the world of nannies

Most parents will tell you that looking after kids is a full-time job. Even without trying to juggle work and an attempt at a social life, taking care of your little ones can be as draining as it is rewarding, so it’s unsurprising that most expat mums and dads hire home help. An advantage of living in Vietnam is inexpensive childcare: a space at a daycare center in the US or Europe can cost anywhere from USD600 to USD2,500 a month, and the cost of private care infinitely higher; but in Vietnam a full-time nanny who works the standard Monday to Saturday week will receive approximately VND5 million to VND10 million a month. Two years ago that figure could be as little as VND2 million a month—especially among local Vietnamese families—but as the economic boom continues, wages and local expectations are on the rise. This may be a big jump, especially when you consider a Vietnamese accountant will typically earn just over VND4million a month after finishing school, but VND10 million is hardly a pinch for most expat pockets.

However, even if you are prepared to hand over more than the market price, finding your perfect Mary Poppins is becoming harder and harder. Nannies might be better paid than graduate positions or sales roles, but changing expectations and career aspirations mean that many Vietnamese simply do not want the job. Jason Liu, an expat who has relocated here, has tried to hire his sister’s former nanny for his own children for 50 percent more than the wage she earned from a local restaurant. She refused.

“It’s also getting harder to find a live-in nanny,” he adds. “Now the only people who want to do that are people from the countryside, somebody that you find through someone else’s help, or a distant relative of yours. But if you can find someone from the countryside who will accept an average Vietnamese salary, for most expats this arrangement is far from ideal—if you can’t speak Vietnamese, you simply can’t communicate.”

Another factor driving higher wage expectations is foreigners’ large disposable income and differing value system. “Expats that are hired overseas to come here have large allowances for their cars, drivers and home,” adds Jason. “It’s ridiculous. An acquaintance told me he has a car allowance of USD1000 a month, so paid their driver USD800. These people are driving the inflation.”

It’s understandable that if people think they can earn more, they’re going to ask for it, and the increasing demand for nannies coupled with a deficit of workers means it’s very much an employees’ market.

Samantha is an expat mom who has found it hard to replace her former nanny. “She left a couple of months ago. I found one person, but she didn’t want me—she went with someone else as she preferred to look after a baby than older kids. Now it seems the help is interviewing you, and from the 20 women that applied, there’s only two that I would consider.”

Like many others, Samantha agrees the best way to look is through word-of-mouth. Another popular point of contact is the notice board at the An Phu supermarket, where many nannies advertise their services, and Facebook but the posts on there are hard to quality check. Poaching your nanny from another family can be an effective method, although you may find yourself unpopular.

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“How long it takes to find a nanny really depends on your requirements—finding a nanny that speaks English well can be very difficult, and there’s more demand now as there are more and more foreigners,” says Samantha. “If you don’t need a nanny fluent in English, it’ll cost around USD250-USD350 for live-in. For a working week of 40 to 50 hours, the wages are a little lower. For a nanny that can speak English, depending on availability the monthly wage will be USD350+, but in every case we will need to discuss if who will pay insurance, provide meals, the 13th month salary etc.”

While local agencies can only provide Vietnamese nannies there is an alternative—some expats prefer to hire foreign au pairs for the educational development and stimulation these au pairs give their children. One Spanish expat businessman explained how he hired American or Canadian au pairs through www.greataupair.com as he wanted his young children to learn English at home. Then, once they started at a local English-speaking international school, he hired Spanish-speaking au pairs so they could study their native Spanish language at home.

“The point with a foreign nanny is not just to look after the kids—the Vietnamese do this very well—but to make sure they don’t spend their afternoon watching TV or doing nothing,” he says. “I want them to be active, play games, do art and crafts, sport… and foreign nannies understand this better.”

Another important point is that the difference in wages is not particularly great. “The salary varies, but in the last five years that I’ve employed au pairs, I pay between USD200 and USD300 a week,” he adds. “Of course on top of that we have to provide food and accommodation as she lives with us and is really part of the family. I’m guessing the wage of an experienced Vietnamese nanny is around USD400 a month, so the difference is not that huge.”

With agencies charging USD400 a month for English-speaking nannies, paying slightly more for Western help is certainly food for thought, especially as foreign au pairs come with a relevant educational background and will often hold first aid certification.

Au pairs are relatively easy to find—there are many websites that offer an introduction service between au pairs looking for work and families overseas, but while hiring a foreigner comes with certain reassurances, the element of Vietnamese cultural contact many expats want for their child and the family as a whole is lost. For those who do want to be able to communicate easily, employing an English-speaking Filipina nanny at a local rate is another option.

If you do opt for a Vietnamese nanny, the problem then is to determine whether the person in front of you has the capability and personality to take care of your children. For many expat families the ultimate question is, can you trust them?

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“It’s the hardest thing in the world to do,” says Tracy, mother of three. “If only someone has a formula for judging it. You can only ask them questions. I try and get someone back for a second interview. I won’t employ anyone who hasn’t worked for Westerners or hasn’t got children themselves.”

American expat Grace says her head begins to ache at the mere mention of the process of hiring nannies. In the last two years, she and her husband have gone through a total of five nannies since they had their child. They let the first one go because she wasn’t that clean, the second because she wouldn’t feed her child who kept crying, the third because of a personality conflict, and the fourth because she went about her work in too leisurely a manner. The fifth resigned on her own because she lived too far away.

Tracy has a list of qualities that she looks for in a nanny. “Look for intelligence, the ability to think for themselves, and an independent character. Someone with a smiley happy face, who will bring warmth and joy into family—she’ll be central to your life, so it’s important that your kids like her.”

If you are lucky to find the local equivalent of Mary Poppins, who’s practically perfect in every way, how can you make sure she’s happy enough to stay? Nguyen Giang worked as an expat nanny for many years, and while she lists a reasonable monthly wage is important, she ranks a good relationship and trust at the top of her priorities. “For me, I tell them: ‘Believe that person and build a relationship.’ When I went to my first family they opened their home to me, they made me feel welcomed. I didn’t get a high salary there, but I feel they are my family. My advice is, even if your nanny sometimes makes mistakes, don’t treat them badly—nobody is perfect. Most important is finding someone who is happy, good for children. If you love children, it’s not really a job.”

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN